Salted Butter vs Unsalted Butter in Baking

sticks of salted butter and unsalted butter

Here’s a common question in the kitchen. What’s the deal with salted and unsalted butter in baking? Does it really make a difference? Or is the recipe just being annoyingly picky? Ugh, baking.

Yes and yes I’m sorry.

Butter is our best friend in the kitchen, especially when it comes to pie crusts and cookies and cakes and cupcakes and poundcake and oh yeah, every other thing we have ever baked! Butter’s so common in our recipes that we often take this simple ingredient for granted. But the truth is that butter is just as fussy as the next baking ingredient. If your butter is too warm, forget about creaming it and your “fluffy cake” will end up dense, lifeless, and flat. Too cold and you’ll wind up with harsh chunks of butter in your otherwise pristine cake batter. Not only with regards to temperature, butter is a massive question mark when it comes to salt content. And that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss today.

sticks of unsalted butter

It’s quite ironic that a recipe can call for both unsalted (sweet) butter and salt. Why not just use salted butter? 2 or 3 reasons, actually.

1. The amount of salt in salted butter varies between brands.

You know baking is all about science, but it’s all about control as well. When you use unsalted butter in a recipe, you can control the exact amount of salt in your baked good. When you use salted butter, you have no idea how much salt you’re using because it varies between each brand you see at the store. Chowhound tells us the exact amount of salt in popular brands and some are double the amount of others! It would take quite a lot of salted butter to really produce a huge taste difference in baked goods, but it’s still good to be able to fully control the amount of salt.

2. Unsalted butter is fresher.

Salt is a preservative and therefore, salted butter has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. We’re talking 3-4 months of shelf time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that salted butter has been on the shelf longer; it simply has a longer shelf life. For the freshest butter, reach for the unsalted variety. (Or heck! Make your own!) However, some brands add “natural flavor” to unsalted butter, which extends its shelf life (not quite as long as salt). This is usually lactic acid, which also helps regulate its pH.

sticks of salted butter

How to Substitute Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter

It’s best to use the type of butter called for in a recipe. But here’s a general rule: reduce or add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup (1/4 lb; 115g; 1 stick) of butter.

Explained: If you come across a recipe that calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted butter, use unsalted butter and increase the salt in the recipe by 1/4 teaspoon for every 1/2 cup of butter. So if a recipe calls for 1 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt, you will use 1 cup of unsalted butter and 3/4 teaspoon of salt. And if you come across a recipe that calls for unsalted butter and all you have is salted butter, simply decrease the salt in the recipe by the same ratio above– 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup of butter. If you’re making a recipe that calls for 1/2 cup of unsalted butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, you can use 1/2 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Get it?

Further reading:

14 Comments

  1. If a recipe doesn’t specify which type of butter to use, is one type better than the other to default to?

    1. I always default to unsalted. And guesstimate the salt. It’s tricky.

  2. Such an informative post, thank you! I love your Baking Basics series, each post has really helped me understand the chemistry behind baking.

    Tomorrow I am making your red velvet cake recipe, can’t wait to try it! I have already made several of your recipes and each one has come out perfect!

  3. Yay, baking basics rock! I love that you include science (like pH) in these posts. I always enjoy learning about how ingredients play a part in the recipe. Thanks Sally! 🙂

  4. I have always wondered about this. Great post 🙂 

  5. I love learning about the science of baking!!! Thanks for sharing, keep the science coming!

  6. I always use unsalted butter for all of my recipes UNLESS it actually calls for salted butter. I’m usually well stocked with both types at home though. I SO appreciate someone who posts a recipe (like you) that states unsalted or salted butter! 🙂

  7. Can you do a post on European butters vs. those made in the USA? I know there is a difference in the butter fat content and the European is great for pie crusts and flaky pastries, but I thought using a European style butter (unsalted or salted) if a recipe doesn’t specifically call for it can negatively affect the successful results with cookies, cakes, etc. I’d greatly appreciate your insights and experience with this issue. Thank you

    1. Hi Ann! In my experience, European style butters aren’t ideal for baking smaller items with short bake times such as cookies and cupcakes. Larger items like quick breads are usually fine, but these higher fat butters create excess spread in cookies and often yield greasier cupcakes. It, of course, depends on the brand and recipe you are using but that’s my general experience.

  8. This was so helpful! I’m a beginner in the baking world and this was exactly what I needed to hear!

  9. Hi i have a question. You talked about the general rule of adding or reducing the amount of salt regarding if it is salted or unsalted butter. But may I know if the recipe doesn’t require salt but need 1 stick of salted butter, but all i have is unsalted butter, how much should i add/reduce for the measurement??
    Please let me know, thank you

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Kenny, If you come across a recipe that calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted butter, you will add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter. So if your recipe calls for a full cup of salted butter (or two sticks of salted butter) you will use unsalted butter and add 1/2 teaspoon salt.

  10. How about for a croissant recipe that calls for unsalted but all I have is salted. I plan to reduce the salt by the above amount but will I just waste my time and other ingredients on a product that won’t turn out? Will the salt kill the yeast? What do you think, the idea of getting to the grocery store to get the right butter seems an impossible task…but if I wait, maybe in a few days- but I want to start the croissants!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Chelsea, Salt in very high concentrations can slow down the yeast. If you use our Homemade Croissant Recipe and use salted butter, you can reduce the added salt to 1 and 1/4 teaspoon.

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